Wednesday, March 26, 2008
In 1954, not too long after the end of WWII, with England heavily rationed, hospitals laboring to look after the wounded and much of the country still scarred by bomb craters and debris, my parents decided to move to Canada with their asthmatic daughter.. me. We went directly to cottage country by a little lake 25 miles north of Toronto and that's where I grew up.
Lake Wilcox was close enough to the city that it was a very popular spot on summer weekends. Although you could drive to the bigger lakes further north, doing so wasn't practical back then since the only way to get to them was by two lane roads many of which weren't paved. Going that far was possible but it had to be for a week or two just to make the drive practical. So never mind Sauble Beach on Lake Huron with its miles of white sand, Sunday picnics often meant Ash's Beach at Lake Wilcox and it sometimes seemed as if half the population of Toronto drove in. The cars were filled with irritated sweaty grownups and tons of kids just plain looking for a place to stop. Most of the beaches were private and there were no parking lots so once the park itself was was full the only hope of a spot was a slim chance that someone with a pregnant woman would have to drive to the hospital right that minute. Come to think of it there were likely a few babies born in those circling cars. All was chaos on the weekends.
But there was a roadhouse with beer (except on Sunday when people brown bagged the stuff), pool tables, pinball machines and a good size contingent of bikers usually on hand. Across the road was Ash's booth that sold soft drinks, ice cream, burgers, fries and hotdogs. Next to it was the entrance down the stairs to the beach and next to that was the dance hall - jukebox, jitterbug heaven. I didn't get out of the house after dark to check the nighttime action for years but we knew it could be dangerous.
Even though the weekends were crazy and the nights could be it was the days that belonged to us kids and the mothers who occasionally paid attention to what we were getting up to. We spent the summers in and around the water. There were artesian springs that fed the lake and we loved finding where they'd sprung up from one summer to another. You could put your arm or leg into what appeared to be a wet hole in the beachgrass and feel the icy cold as deep as you could reach while the sun baked the rest of you. We'd cover each other with wet clay and then go dashing into the lake to clean off. Since I wasn't allowed to swim until July I often had to find other ways to entertain myself and one of my personal favorite places was a very old and decrepit roller skating rink further along the beach. There were hundreds of pairs of old roller skates lining the walls and the trick was to find a pair the right size with unbroken straps you could fasten to your shoes. I liked to spend hours pretending I was a famous skating queen or a magic flying fairy.
Now our own beach was a lot of fun but the cool place to go during the week was Ash's Beach. Every winter big dump trucks filled with sand would drive out onto the lake and dump their loads on the ice of Ash's so there'd be mostly sand under the water and not weeds.. a very big yuck to all of us. There were also things to play on at Ash's - water slides, diving boards, rafts that floated on big empty barrels and the boats. All of them were great places to play pirate and, since every year Mary Martin appeared live on television to do her Peter Pan role, we were all very big fans of pirates.
Jean Ash, who was also mother to two of the kids, ran the ticket area for the beach. The .25 cent admission was about as much as any of us got as a whole weeks allowance so paying admission wasn't exactly on the agenda. But Jean was very cool, our own local version of Bettie Page who really had seen everything, and she pretended not to notice when we came swimming around the fences that went out into the water. She'd even tell us stories about some of the wackier people who came to swim - like the butch women who demanded to rent men's bathing trunks. None of us knew what to make of that but it was pretty funny.
One of our favorite activities was climbing down the rope that anchored the rafts. The idea was to stay down there holding your breath as long as possible. Strangely enough, me with my asthmatic chest, won those contests more than anyone else.
Then there was the Booth. My friend Rita's mother was one of the women charged with watching me since both my parents had jobs in Toronto and Linda's mother worked at the Booth doing the food preparation and serving the customers. One weekday afternoon Linda and I heard shrieks of laughter from behind the closed shutters so sneaked inside to have a look at what all the fun was about. A lot of ladies at that time were what you might term statuesque, not necessarily fat but big, buxom women who'd given birth to several children. An old brass balance scale was part of the kitchen equipment inside and when we peeked around the ice cream coolers we couldn't believe what we saw them doing. There were five women with their blouses unbuttoned and their bras lifted up or unfastened and they were having a contest of their own to see who among them had the biggest, heaviest breasts. Linda and I sneaked back out without them knowing we'd been there.
It's occurred to me more than once that many Americans harbor some unrealistic views about Canada. They see it as a perfect land with no crime, no accidents, free health-care for all and the Prime Minister makes sure everyone is tucked safely into bed every night at 9:00 o'clock. Well, none of that's true except for number 3 and to illustrate (good God, a pun!) here's a true story from the late 60's:
At the time I not only had a full-time job but was attending art classes and rehearsing a play so it seems the last thing I'd want was more employment. I've never spent any time under one of those trees that money falls off and since I had a trip in mind I figured since I was young and healthy, why not take a job that began at midnight? To this day I can't remember who offered it to me but one night after rehearsal I found my way to an unmarked street door on Dundas and climbed up a long staircase to the 4th floor where I found an after hours nightclub. I'd always thought that once the clubs closed all the musicians went home to bed like everybody else but I learned a lot of them aren't the least bit sleepy and prefer to go clubbing. The place itself was more than a bit tacky with unmatched broken chairs, peeling wallpaper, permanent nicotine and beer fug, and cockroaches. Then again, few nightclubs could pass the good housekeeping standards of our mothers and that's why we like them.
The idea was that I'd stand behind a little counter at the top of the stairs and collect the admission fees until around 3am. It was a private club but only in the sense that whoever came by could just say they were a member and the Toronto police turned a blind eye to the fact the owners made their money selling drinks the same as at any other bar. Round about 1am the place would start getting busy as musicians, their girlfriends and various other night people started to arrive. Of course, there'd be a lot of jamming going on as old friends who were playing clubs like the Brown Derby and Le Coq D'or actually got to spend some time playing with each other. The music was very cool and I didn't mind the fact I wasn't getting paid much. Nevertheless, there I was with an open cash box that nobody showed much interest in and the pay really was very bad. Ross, the bouncer was also very badly paid and since he acted as my bodyguard when required I decided to amend our income directly by taking some money every night and splitting it between us.
As an example of why I might need a bodyguard I remember one night when I heard the door crash open at the foot of the stairs followed by the sounds of shouting and stomping as the new arrivals got closer to the club entrance. All of a sudden a crying woman screamed, "You're gonna hit me! I know you're gonna hit me!" The next sound was a terrific SLAP! Then the footsteps continued. On arrival, if I hadn't already suspected, it turned out to be a pimp and some of his ladies - one of whom apparently hadn't earned her keep that night and the guy was mad. The weird thing though, was that she kept describing her own punishment since the next thing she screamed was, "You're not gonna pay my way in!" So the guy said, "Pay your own way in, Bitch!" There she is all boo-hooing but out of the sobs came some fatal words, "You're gonna push me down the stairs! You're gonna push me down the fuckin stairs!" Oh dear. Everything seemed to go very quiet as he let go of one of the other girls and turned to move toward her. Next thing he'd grabbed her by the shoulders and gave a mighty push down the long stairs that had no landings. There were loud bumps, yells and finally a crash as she hit the bottom. I think I'd stopped breathing. Then a minute or so later we heard the door open at the bottom and the sounds of her still crying as she left.
The next night when I arrived the owners had left a roll of tickets that I was supposed to give half of to the customers and keep the other half in the cash box. It seemed they'd been counting the patrons and had found a discrepancy in the entrance fees. I stayed and did my shift without handing out any tickets and at the end of the night I took all the money. I gave half to Ross and kept the rest.
A few days later I ran into Ross on Yonge St. and we walked a ways together. He told me 'they' were looking for me and said I probably shouldn't go back. I wasn't planning to. The criminal was me.
When you work as a housekeeper the second worst thing you can find when you open the door for the first time is a clean house. The worst thing is to find a clean house that's also creepy. I ran into one of those in Providence which, as you may or may not know, is one of the oldest cities in the US. At the time I got jobs from an agency and one autumn day they had a new place on their list and I went by for the key. Usually, the keys were like the ones we all carry but this key was of the big old fashioned skeleton variety.
I had a map, since I wasn't all that familiar with the city yet, and found the address on the East Side where it's mostly steep, narrow and cobblestoned. The houses are big but often built deep into the properties with narrow fronts facing the street. Brown University and the Rhode Island School of Design are both in the neighbourhood as is the amazingly enormous Swan Point Cemetary. But more on that another time. Providence was also famous as the junk jewelry capital of the country (Monet, Spiedel etc.) so there were tons of little factories that specialized in watch bands, pins, belt buckles and all the associated metal work with cleaning, degreasing and polishing. Many of them were closing back then as even cheaper stuff came in from other countries.
The house turned out to be closer to the Providence River than to the ivy league schools when I finally found it and to say the neighbourhood was deserted would be an understatement.
The front door led to a dim foyer with the livingroom further along a narrow hall. Inside, everything was neat and clean but musty and dark since the inside doors were all closed and what few windows there were faced the buildings on either side. The floors were dark oak, the walls half covered in over varnished wainscotting, and the furniture sparse but old and heavy. There was a black marble fireplace and the upper half of the walls were covered in the ugliest paper I'd ever seen.
The main floor also had a long, narrow dining room filled with cumbersome Victorian stuff - table, sideboard, curio cabinets and chairs. It was hard to imagine more than one person fitting the space. Further along the hall was a library that looked similar to the rest.
The stairway going up was in the foyer so up I went only to find another corridor with closed doors on either side. One door was locked so I passed on that but found four bedrooms and two old fashioned bathrooms - clawfoot tubs and ten gallon toilets. The next flight up led to what had been servants quarters - tiny rooms and almost no light at all. Since it didn't look occupied I decided to dust and be done up there.
I'd been turning lights on where I could find them but the place wasn't bright and neither did it look inhabited. There was no dust or dust bunnies; the fireplace was clean; the bathrooms unsoaped, unstained and unsullied; the bedrooms made up but unslept in. I was in serious need of some grime so it was time to go and find the kitchen. Just beyond the diningroom door were more stairs going down and that seemed the logical place to look.
Ah, kitchen! Geez! That was clean too but I went ahead and found the vacuum cleaner and other stuff in a pantry. I also found a wine cellar, another fireplace with a couch and a couple of chairs, a completely walled-in courtyard beyond some new glass doors, and best of all.. a radio which I turned on.
Have I mentioned I'd been reading H.P. Lovecraft? He lived on the East Side of Providence all his life and is buried at Swan Point. Every year on Hallowe'en an unknown group has celebrated a black mass at his sepulchre.. or at least the signs of that have been found the next day. Lovecraft is easily laughed off if you read one or two of his books at the beach but my experience was reading him while living in Providence and he was very knowledgeable about the old city and its foundations and architectural history. So when he wrote about tunnels and underground chambers inhabited by pale, slimey, slithery, sucking beasts it started to gain a subconscious hold.
So there I was in the kitchen with the lamps and the radio. The house felt heavy and portentous above me but there was a job to be done so, ready or not, I picked up the vacuum cleaner and carried it up the stairs. The lights had gone out so I turned them back on as I went all the way to the top.
I worked up there doing the usual things even though nothing looked cleaner as I worked but I needed glass cleaner so went back down to the kitchen to find some. All the lights were out on the main floor again and once again I relit them. As I went down the back stairs to the kitchen the lights went out behind me. When I got to the foot of the staircase the lights down there shut off and the radio clicked off. I stood stock still and looked all around but could see nothing different and nobody was there. I would almost have been happier if someone was there but there wasn't. I'd had enough.
One minute later I was up the stairs, down the hall and out the front door. I decided to cut through the river park on my way back to the agency to return the key. It was only later I realized a duster was still hanging out of my back pocket.